Opposition to GMONE of the more unedifying aspects of the fight over genetically modified food has been the unbending opposition of Greenpeace and others to rice that has been modified to help prevent blindness. Golden Rice contains a precursor of vitamin A, deficiency of which blinds an estimated half a million children every year.
Opponents of the rice are not oblivious to the tragedy, but argue there are other solutions. They are correct. One has just been found effective in Uganda - a naturally bred, fortified sweet potato.
Good news, but no single solution will work everywhere. To eradicate preventable blindness, we need as many options as possible. The sweet success of the potato doesn't mean that GM can or should be taken off the menu. So it is also good news that the latest research into Golden Rice bolsters the case for its adoption (see "Nutrient-boosted foods protect against blindness").
In light of this, opposition to Golden Rice increasingly looks like bullheadedness rooted in a desire to halt GM at any cost. There are reasons to be wary of GM promoted by big business. But tarring a humanitarian project with the same brush is dogmatic - and wrong.
The letter from Pete Riley of campaign group GM Freeze questioning a field trial of genetically modified wheat illustrates one of the defects of the environmentalist philosophy (16 June, p 32). He equates practical with moral objections. The fact that a modification might not "work" is taken as a moral argument that it should not be tested in the first place.
Non-GM foods, themselves the product of many generations of breeding, are generally not subject to particular safety testing, despite the fact that food allergies are common. But new GM varieties are tested. We should, therefore, be more relaxed about GM foods than non-GM foods.
The US population is, indeed, a case study on the dangers of GM food. The truth is that no one in America has shown any additional harmful effects from consuming GM crops. Whatever problems may or may not result from eating GM food apply equally to non-GM food.
If GM foods are barred from describing themselves as ‘natural’, so should non-GM foods, too. It has been 10,000 years since the invention of agriculture. There is nothing natural about anything on our dinner plates now, unless it has been picked wild. How many people do that? Otherwise, it matters not one jot whether your food is ‘organic’ or ‘biodynamic’ or eco-friendly or anything else. It would not exist unless human beings had spent centuries adapting and improving it from the state we found it in nature.
Bendy Sausages on BBQWhy do some sausages curl when they cook - even those that start off straight? And why do some stay straight, such as hotdog sausages? And how can I stop the ones that do curl from doing so, allowing me to brown them evenly?
• Sausage skin is mostly collagen, which shrinks violently in cooking because it is degraded and dried by the heat. Most cooking equipment applies heat asymmetrically, causing uneven shrinkage, which creates curl. Partly to avoid this problem, modern hot dogs do not have a collagen skin. Brute force, by using skewers or confining the sausage in a barbecue grill clamp, will counter the problem. Subtler strategies such as severing fibres can forestall the effect, both in sausages and in steaks and chops. There are also tricks based on heating sausages evenly and slowly, or by judiciously turning them so that the convex side is always towards the heat. Such tricks ensure that the skin on opposite sides shrinks in unison and opposing pulls counteract each other.
Boerewors stands with rotary sausage grillers take that principle to its logical conclusion. Boerewors can curl with the best, but the griller comprises a parallel array of closely spaced hot metal cylinders that roll continuously in the same direction. The sausages rest on two cylinders at a time and roll in the opposite direction. The products are sausages to dream of: big, tasty and straight, almost independent of the operator's skill. Eat your heart out bangers!
• We solve the sausage curl problem by inserting a pre-soaked bamboo skewer into the sausage to about two-thirds of its length, leaving about 10 centimetres of skewer for a handle. Then we barbecue them and eat them like a sausage lollipop which you can dip into sauce. They stay completely straight and are a hit at parties. You also have one hand free for your beer or wine.
OnionsHow did just one inner layer of this onion (see photo) turn rotten while the surrounding layers were unaffected?
Ask three experts, get three different answers... We suspect more evidence may be needed to choose between them - Ed
• This is not rot in the pathological sense, but a breakdown of the cells of the onion ring known as internal browning. There is no disease present, and the rest of the onion is safe to eat.
Internal browning is caused by a lack of calcium in the developing tissue, leading it to collapse. This calcium deficiency is down to the onion experiencing severe drought conditions at some stage during its growth.
Calcium is only sparingly soluble in plant fluids, and although onions are generally drought-resistant, a prolonged dry period, such as that which the UK experienced last year, would have prevented the plant from both taking up calcium and moving it to where it was needed for growth and development. Acidic growing conditions would make the problem worse. As soon as the plant is able to obtain calcium, however, growth proceeds normally.
Internal browning affects many plants, including brassicas, lettuces and apples, and I have even observed similar problems in the flowers of some shrubs. The remedy is to maintain calcium levels in soil by applying lime, and minimising the effects of drought. Under normal growing conditions, an onion crop will require rainfall of 3 millimetres per day to avoid such problems.
J. A. Crofts, Nottingham, UK
• The darker section in this onion is due to a developmental error as the bulb formed.
An onion plant has eight or nine leaves and near the end of the growing season, the bases of the inner leaves swell and store large amounts of starch and some sugars. These swollen leaves then form the bulb or onion. The outer couple of leaves die and dry out to form the thin papery leaves that protect the food store inside.
In this case the dry leaves have formed as usual on the outside, then two or three food store leaves have developed and swollen. But a developmental accident has occurred and the next leaf in has dehydrated to start forming papery outer leaves. Within this there are further food store leaves and the shoot tip with next year's immature leaves.
This developmental abnormality occurs infrequently, but I have seen it before.
P. Scott, Hove, East Sussex, UK
• Onion bulbs consist of concentric leaf bases, the upper parts of which extend out of the top of the bulb, called the neck, where they are green. Onions can get a disease called neck rot, caused by Botrytis allii, which lives on dead leaves while the onion is growing, but becomes pathogenic at the end of the growing season, moving down through the leaves and into the bulb, where it causes them to rot.
The reason that only one layer, or leaf base, in the onion has rotted is because only that particular leaf has a B. allii infection. It has been unable to penetrate the epidermis of the adjacent leaf bases so has not been able to infect them - yet.
SultanasHow do they get sultanas to spread evenly in a packet of sultana bran?
It can’t be elves or military-grade nanorobotics. Or can it? I phone Kellogg’s.
“There must be a rational explanation,” says the woman who answered Kellogg’s’s phone.
She asks someone who asks someone else who asks someone who knows. It’s not elves, it’s Ishida scales.
These are fiendishly clever Japanese scales which can measure out portions of up to 20 different ingredients and drop them all into a packet before you can say konnichiwa. Kellogg’s uses a five-scale setup, three for bran flakes, two for sultanas, supplied by “vibratory feeders” which sound naughtier than they are. It goes flakes, sultanas, flakes, sultanas, flakes, next.
“By doing it in five layers, we ensure the sultanas are spread around evenly,” says a man in the Kellogg’s research and technology department.
But why don’t they all sneak to the bottom in the truck en route to the supermarket?
“We’re lucky. There isn’t sufficient vibration in transport to cause the sultanas to settle out.”
In the Sunday Times research and technology department, I shake three packets of sultana bran with varying degrees of force. Only the last packet, shaken vigorously on and off for three hours, shows any signs of sultana clotting. How do these sultanas continue to defy gravity? Nanorobots are too expensive. My money’s on the elves.
FattiesSamantha Murphy's feature on the health benefits of obesity included discussion of how best to quantify excess weight (3 May, p 44). In my clinical experience, roughly gauging abdominal flab by grabbing a handful gives a great view of "fatness" that discounts body frame and muscularity.
Intestinal Bacteria and Faecal TransplantsJessica Hamzelou describes the enormous influence intestinal bacteria have on the behaviour of the human body (14 February, p 8).
I wonder if this casts doubt on the validity of epidemiological studies on the diet. Could the benefit of a Mediterranean diet be dependent on a Mediterranean faecal biota?
To my knowledge, standardisation of faecal biota isn't a feature of dietary surveys. Surely the effect of diet can only be meaningful if this factor is taken into account – especially if a faecal transplant can trigger obesity, as Hamzelou describes.
As a final thought, when one is choosing a faecal donor, it may not pay to choose someone with an active sporting lifestyle. The physical fitness might be compensating for deficiencies in the microbiome. Would it not be better to choose a healthy couch potato whose biota are keeping them fit, despite their inactive lifestyle?
PesticidesRegarding your special report on chemical additives, "pesticides" is not a chemically meaningful classification (29 November, p 34).
Since the natural world is the battleground for chemical warfare fought constantly between species, it is filled with pesticides.
Many of the pesticides we exploit are natural in origin, such as antibiotics, strychnine and nicotine. At this time of year, let us consider the cyanide in our Christmas cake. Synthetic cyanide is sometimes used as a crop fumigant, but that is not how it finds its way into our food.
Many plants produce cyanide, probably as a larvicide. The plum family does, for example, which includes the almond and cherry.
Traditional marzipan includes poisonous bitter almonds in the recipe. I also fancy I have tasted cyanide in parsnips, another seasonal favourite.
Cooking With Computer AlgorithmsDo you eat because you like the taste, or because it evokes a place?
I sent a copy of Cognitive Cooking With Chef Watson, a cookbook that was published last month, to Ari Taymor, the young chef of Alma, an inventive restaurant in Los Angeles. As Taymor paged through, it seemed obvious to him that Watson was performing some kind of cognitive act, but whatever the nature of that act was, it didn’t seem to have anything to do with pleasure. “I just can’t imagine anyone ever sitting down in a restaurant and deciding that what they wanted was this food,” he told me. The thrill of the Chef Watson project, to Briscione, had been its intellectual abandon — the way in which it took food and unmoored it from culture. To Taymor, this seemed to misunderstand what food was about: “evoking a specific place, a specific experience,” a kind of mooring that a machine couldn’t replicate or comprehend.
Diner DadsI have a buddy who, every single time we go out to eat, will do something like this:
Friend - The chicken wings...can I get an order of those with half of them medium and half of them hot?
Server - Sure, we can do that
Friend - Awesome! I'll have the cheeseburger, medium rare.
My dad does this every time we go out to eat.
Waitress: sees that dad hasn't eaten all his food "Do you want a box for that?"
Dad: "No, but I'll wrestle ya for it!"
When I waited tables I asked the gentleman if he was finished and he said "No, I'm American."
Friend (to server): I'll have the clam chowder, please.
Server: Do you want a cup or a bowl?
Friend: That's probably a good idea, otherwise it will just go all over the table.
Meat or VegesDo humans have an innate desire to eat meat, or is it cultural? If our culture had all references to eating meat removed, would people still desire it? It is less an innate desire for meat in particular than for concentrated nutrition such as fats and proteins. Even in non-meat foods, we favour nutrient-rich items such as nuts, fruits, grains and tubers. Think of how appetising chocolate or halva is, compared with lettuce or grass.
Herbivores generally must eat large quantities of low-grade plant foods, discarding most of the fibre and excess materials they contain. They also discard the toxins: plants are generally full of harmful chemicals that herbivores must tolerate, excrete or destroy, while concentrating the vitamins, proteins, fats and digestible carbohydrates.
The resultant, purified herbivore flesh suits carnivores, which would die if they tried eating too much of the wrong plant matter – the list of wholesome plant foods that could kill your dog or cat is shocking. Many herbivores are partial to a bit of meat if they can get it, and omnivores will generally work harder to obtain animal-based food than plant-based food.
So it is with us: most of us relish and thrive on some of the concentrated fat, protein, vitamins and essential fatty acids in meat.